Moving on from the Ismaili Centre in Dubai, Egyptian architects discuss working with Hassan Fathy
For more than a decade, the Ismaili Centre in Dubai has stood as a symbolic marker of the Ismaili community in the Middle East, serving as an ambassadorial building, a ‘jamatkhana’ or place of worship, and a space for social and cultural gatherings, intellectual engagement and spiritual contemplation.
Commissioned by His Highness the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, the building, like all Ismaili centres, follows spatial principles that coincide with the Islamic branch’s teachings. It also exemplifies the architectural principles of Egyptian modernist architect Hassan Fathy, as it was designed by the husband-and-wife team Rami El Dahan and Soheir Farid, who worked under the late architect’s guidance and mentorship for 10 years.
Set on a corner site in Oud Metha, a small residential neighbourhood in Dubai, the monumental structure consists primarily of Aleppo limestone. While Syrian masons completed the stone work, an Egyptian master mason, whose father worked with Fathy, led the construction of the many brick domes that shelter the building.
The Ismaili Centre in Dubai displays a meticulous devotion toward artisanal quality and detailing – an attitude El Dahan and Farid inherited from Fathy, and which serves as the driving force behind their own architecture.
Although described in multiple publications as a structure inspired by Fatimid architecture, the architects insist this is not true.
“We have been asked many times what our reference is, and I always answer that we don’t have one – it all comes from within,” El Dahan explained. “Of course, the concept of the procession hall is very Fatimid, but the detailing is a modern interpretation of building with stone. We, as architects, don’t like the word ‘style’ because style is only the superficial layer. If you remove the superficial layer, you remove the style, but you keep the architecture.
“We always have to explain our references, [although] we try to avoid this because we don’t copy. I don’t open a book of Islamic architecture and say this feature is nice and copy it. We look at Islamic architecture almost every day; it’s become a part of us. So when we are designing, it is coming from inside, and it could by coincidence look like something we have seen before, but it is never straight forward copying.”
Much like Fathy’s work, Dubai’s Ismaili Centre is a bridge between tradition and modernity, suspended timelessly amid an environment cluttered with glass and concrete towers. And while the building features canonical elements found in Islamic architecture, like domes, vaults and corbels, the execution and attitude toward materiality is principally modern.
“[The building] is very modern in its thinking. A lot of modern architecture is built with concrete and is left fare-faced and the structure is true. Everything here is designed with this kind of thinking. It is true to the material, it is not cladded or pretentious. We built in stone, and even without ornaments or carvings, it is still impressive,” El Dahan said.
The architects explained how working with Fathy gave them a certain attitude toward architecture, and life itself.
“We took from him a kind of energy which I think, even after many years since his passing, we are still working with,” El Dahan said.
“In the beginning we used to try to think as he would think, and then with time we started developing our work. I don’t think the Ismaili Centre looks like Fathy’s work, but I am sure he would have been proud of it because it reflects his teachings,” he added.
Having met at university, El Dahan and Farid joined Fathy’s architecture firm, the International Institute for Appropriate Technology, in 1979, a year after their graduation from Cairo University. And although the architects set up their own practice in 1985 under Rami El Dahan and Soheir Farid Architects (which was changed to El Dahan and Farid Engineering Consultants, Ltd. in 1996), Fathy continued to play a mentorship role in their lives until his death in 1989.
“We learned everything from Fathy,” El Dahan said. “He opened our eyes to the vernacular architecture of every country, and we have learned from this architecture to produce our own.”
He, however, argued that vernacular is more than the product of the architecture, and is in fact a state of mind.
“We learn from the vernacular, but we cannot produce vernacular because vernacular exists beyond the architect,” El Dahan explained. “The Ismaili Centre is not a vernacular building, but it has some of the teachings of a vernacular attitude. However, we used the materials in different ways, as well as the space and height. This is how you contemporise.”
El Dahan and Farid’s commission for the Ismaili Centre was preceded by a competition for Al Azhar Park, organised by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture to convert a dusty area in Old Cairo filled with rubble into 30 hectares of expansive greenery. It also included the restoration of the site’s surrounding Islamic heritage. The architects’ proposal for a monumental structure for the Hilltop Restaurant won them the competition, as well as the appreciation of His Highness the Aga Khan. The two projects are cited by the architects as two of their most important pieces of work.
However, there is one particular project that the architects identify as the defining start to a steady stream of commissions: Kafr El Gouna, the centre village of El Gouna Development in Egypt, a man-made resort town owned by Samih Sawaris. Located along the Red Sea, the coastal town has a total land area of 36.92 million m2 – 15 million of which have so far been developed.
The project received an honourary prize for the Hassan Fathy Prize in 2009, as well as an Aga Khan Award for Architecture nomination.
“They thought it was too much like Fathy’s work although this is not fair,” El Dahan said of the Aga Khan Award nomination. “It was a very important project at a very important time in Egypt when the country was transforming into a tourist destination in the late 1980s and early 90s. El Gouna marked the turning point in Egypt’s tourism and in our career, so I think it [deserved] a better look from the Aga Khan Award jury.”
The architects cite Sawaris as a visionary client unlike the majority of clients across the country who, they said, neglect architectural consultation and solely focus on building in bulk. Contrastingly, the client behind El Gouna was able to create a harmonious urban landscape through his choice of complementary architects, like American architect Michael Graves.
“Since Fathy, working with the vernacular became fashionable,” El Dahan said. “When Graves started working on hotels in El Gouna, he liked our work and chose us to become his local consultants. He imitated our work in his own way.”
With three exemplary cultural projects under their belt, El Dahan and Farid went on to complete a large portfolio of hotels along the Red Sea and the Gulf, as well as other commercial and residential projects, predominantly in Egypt. Yet, regardless of the sector, Fathy’s teachings, techniques and energy are visible throughout their body of work.
“Fathy would always tell us, ‘in our work we search for the implicit, not the arbitrary’, which means there is always a right solution,” said Farid. “It is not the only solution, but it has to be the right one. It has to have a ‘raison d’etre’, a reason for being.”